From Persecution to Detention: Australia’s Broken Asylum System

From Persecution to Detention: Australia’s Broken Asylum System



Photo: Takver

Nearly 1% of the world’s population now constitutes refugees or internally displaced people, a figure higher than at any point since 1945. This growing refugee crisis has spurred countries around the world to commit to admitting more refugees. This includes the United States, which has raised its fiscal 2016 ceiling on refugee resettlement from 70,000 to 85,000, the first increase in many years. By contrast, Australia’s current policies and practices contradict its recent declaration to accept an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees. The recent promise was met initially with praise from the media, but that praise has soured in light of its current practice of detaining asylum seekers.

Australia has long been heralded as a standard-setter in human rights, but their policies concerning the treatment of those seeking asylum are abysmal. Australia’s “Stop the Boats” policy gained momentum during Tony Abbot’s run for Prime Minister and has forced thousands of asylum seekers either back to their point of embarkation in Indonesia or to be held in detention centers in Manus or Nauru. Australia had even resettled some of these asylum seekers in potentially unsafe parts of Cambodia. Meanwhile, Australia has agreed to compensate Cambodia, Manus, and Nauru for taking asylum seekers desiring resettlement in Australia, with the latter two supposedly being temporary sites until Australian officials can verify the legitimacy of asylum claims.

The practice has been condemned by human rights groups, the United Nations, and foreign governments as a breach of international law codified in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Australia not only ratified, but served as an active participant in drafting. The Convention and subsequent Protocol spell out, in no uncertain terms, that people should not be punished for the way in which they enter a possible country of asylum. This particular part of the Convention was tested in 2012 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Italy for implementing a similar policy against those fleeing Libya. While Australia defends the policy as one that is meant to cut down on “people smuggling,” the policy has lead to thousands being denied a safe escape from persecution and sent to various sites for indefinite periods of time.

In fact, these indefinite detention centers are little, if any, improvement on the scenarios from which asylum seekers fled and have been characterized as Australia’s Guantanamo. While photographic evidence and precise details are scarce due to the government’s policy of extreme secrecy surrounding their offshore detention centers, there have been a bevy of reports on riots, hunger strikes, suicides, and even people stitching their lips together in protest of the conditions at these facilities. Allegations of sexual abuse are common with two more woman coming forward in just the past few days to detail their rapes while in the Nauru detention center.

Even those who have completed the arduous screening process and have been designated as refugees have not been granted proper resettlement in Papua New Guinea or in Australia. Of the handful of people granted status as refugees in Manus, few, if any, have been allowed to search for work and they remain on the island indefinitely. The Australian government insists that these centers are temporary processing sites, however detainees have been held on these islands for years without any sign of relief. This again violates additional portions of the 1951 Convention, which lay out when and how people granted asylum should be given work opportunities and provides that refugees should not be held indefinitely, but only long enough to adequately verify their claims.

Amnesty International estimates that Australia has spent more than $1 billion dollars in the upkeep of offshore asylum seekers. Moreover, since the facilities reopened in 2012, not a single person had been resettled. While Australian government officials assert that most of the inhabitants in these centers would not meet the classification of a refugee, experts disagree and say that likely 90% of them would be granted refugee status, were they ever given the opportunity.

For Syrian refugees, specifically, the Australian government has not only refused many asylum seekers from Syria, it has also actively worked to return them to Syria. The process of sending refugees (or those who have the right to be recognized as refugees) back to their home country is known as refoulement and is not only morally repugnant, but perhaps the practice the 1951 Convention most aimed to stop. Recently released departmental emails from Australian immigration officials show a willful indifference to the fate of those sent back to Syria. One operation’s lead even wrote to a colleague that she told the Syrian asylum seekers in Manus unequivocally that they would not be resettled in Australia or a third party country and, upon telling them this, was told that she would be sending them to their deaths.

In the light of these current situations, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is Janus-faced at best, if not a violation of international law. While there may have been some initial hope that Tony Abbot’s recent removal as Prime Minister might lead to changes in these policies, statements by his replacement, Malcom Turnbull, make that change seem unlikely. After initially expressing concern over the condition in the immigrant detention centers, Prime Minister Turnbull backpedaled almost immediately and stated there would be no resettlement in Australia for those currently held in Nauru or Manus.

The international community should take a stand against the Australian government’s abusive and illegal actions. Refugees add immense value to the societies in which they resettle, and should not be denied their rights with impunity. Unfortunately, the current refugee crisis is likely to only get worse. Over the next few decades many predict that global climate change will cause a wave of “climate refugees” that dwarf the numbers we are seeing today. If Australia is not held accountable for its actions, it may be likely that other countries will follow suit in willfully breaking International Refugee Law.

Sarah Hunter is a J.D. candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.

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